A Minty Fresh Start
It's not easy being easy, at least not on the Chicago rock scene--and the last people you might expect to make it fashionable here are Frank and John Navin, two going-on-40 brothers who've been slogging away at music for nearly 15 years. But with the solid second album by their band the Aluminum Group due out Tuesday on Minty Fresh, the Navins could soon be mentioned in the same sigh as Magnetic Fields, Momus, and Everything but the Girl--a few of the other bands that can pull off a similar mix of sickly sweet arrangements and pessimistic, sometimes scathingly sarcastic lyrics.
The brothers, who unironically refer to their most morose songs as "dark gay ballads," grew up in suburban Detroit but moved to Chicago with their mother in 1979. John, who's now 38, enrolled at Loyola; Frank, who's a year younger, got a job as a janitor at a hospital in Hinsdale and later took classes at the School of the Art Institute. In 1982 they formed their first band, Women in Love, a melodic art-punk group that also featured future God's Acre guitarist Peter Houpt; John played guitar and Frank played keyboards. But three years later, says John, Houpt and drummer John Blaha kicked them out over musical differences. "They thought Frank and I were too fey--even though Frank was going out with one of the girls in the band. We were really bummed out and we thought everyone hated us."
For a change of scenery, the brothers started a musical performance-art group called Bleak House, which played galleries and clubs like Neo. "It was invented to do these very visual, lo-fi theme-based musicals, which we'd do just once," says Frank. Ten Women, for example, featured ten songs about "women we admired or liked," including Billie Holiday, Coco Chanel, and Italian porn star Cicciolina. "We weren't very good," Frank adds. By 1989 the Navins were ready to start another band. Until the early 90s the Aluminum Group--named for the sleek mid-50s furniture line by Charles Eames--existed primarily in their bedrooms, but eventually the lineup solidified to include Poi Dog Pondering's Eddie Carlson on bass and additional keyboardist Liz Conant. They played occasional gigs at coffeehouses like Uncommon Ground and late-night hangouts like Iggy's and Espial, but calling them a blip on the local radar would have been generous at that point.
In an effort to move things along the group released its own debut album, Wonder Boy, in 1995. The brothers' mordant sarcasm is evident ("That Fossil That You Call Your Lover"), as is their basic lounge-pop sound (even on the cover of Guns n' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine"), but despite professional help from jazzers Fareed Haque and Ryan Schultz, the album is musically lifeless. "I'm still paying off my credit card bill for that," mourns Frank, who makes his rent waiting tables downtown. (John works for the Chicago Public Schools, helping physically disabled students learn to use computers, though he claims to have bigger plans: "I know I'm going to sell a song to Kotex," he says. "When I hear one of my songs advertising feminine napkins, I'm going to be very happy.")
The Navins sent the album to about 25 record labels, but only the local indie Minty Fresh and London (where producer Brad Wood, whose wife knew John from Loyola, put in a good word) expressed serious interest. "We also sent one to Andy Williams," says Frank. "Remember, John, his publicist wanted to pick you up. He kept saying, 'You need to come out here. We need to talk about this.'"
"'Andy puts it on when he drives around LA. He thinks it's so poetic,'" John mimics breathily. "But that was a subterfuge," he adds, "because we really wanted to work with his ex-wife Claudine Longet."
In the spring of 1997 the Aluminum Group started recording a second album, at Kingsize Sound Labs with producer Dave Trumfio. Though no one had made any kind of official offer yet, Minty Fresh honcho Jim Powers (whose recent successes have included the Cardigans and Komeda) was still around, volunteering encouraging suggestions from time to time. Band membership had expanded to include another guitarist, John Ridenour, and, in a reconciliatory gesture, Blaha on drums. Trumfio added tasteful rhythm-machine and synthesizer parts, and Mekons vocalist Sally Timms, trumpeter Tito Carillo, and violinist Susan Voelz, among others, pitched in. By Thanksgiving the discussions with Powers had grown more serious, and in December the Aluminum Group signed with Minty Fresh.
The label's financial support hastened the completion of Plano, and thanks in large part to Trumfio's production, this time the music sheathes the lyrics like sugar does arsenic: "I dropped the ice pick when I saw you smile," John sings on the clubby "Sugar & Promises," and on "Steam," Frank croons over a demure shuffle of cymbals, synths, and guitar: "I like love like apricots and you like kerosene / Or maybe I'll just swallow anything."
The Aluminum Group will celebrate the release of Plano at Lounge Ax next Friday, August 14, with a performance "visually inspired by Teletubbies." A U.S. tour is in the works for fall.
Gospel and soul great Mavis Staples joins a bevy of local talent Tuesday at Schubas to sing the songs of Bakersfield country legend Buck Owens. The fourth annual Buck Owens Birthday Party starts at 8 PM and costs $12; proceeds benefit Christmas Is for Kids.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Frank Navin left, John Navin right photo by Brad Miller.